The first uses of the popular phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” date back to the early 1900s. Given the exponential rate of inflation since that time, is it safe to say that a picture is now worth two thousand words, or maybe three thousand? I think so.
One of my first jobs in this business was working as a photographer for a milliner (do you know what that is?). I photographed models wearing all sorts of beautiful hats for small advertisements in The Washington Post. So, my money has always been on pictures over words, any day.
Bias acknowledged, I suggest that we have become more visually oriented as a people, due in large part to the rise and proliferation of image-based media. Enter this intriguing piece of evidence, a recently published time-lapse video of every New York Times cover since the year 1852. Watch and see the introduction of the printed image, then its increasing dominance, and ultimately the bloom of full, front-page color. Further evidence, Instagram is the fastest growing social media platform. One third of all mobile phone users post and view their respective #POTD.
A Google Scholar search for more scientific evidence of whether images speak louder than words yields a plethora of studies, some from many of the greatest research universities. But the studies are hopelessly difficult to read and comprehend, for me anyway. They could use a few pictures or illustrations for clarity sake.
I do know this: our consumer testing of dozens if not hundreds of creative campaigns reveals that most individuals are immediately drawn to the image. Focus group and intercept participants almost always seem compelled to interpret the photographs first, particularly those images of other people engaged in some activity. Only then do they seem to focus on the words. Sorry, copy team.
If you agree that our brains have become increasingly wired and conditioned for the visual image, you’d be wise to focus carefully on the images you use in your communications. Just as you may watch a film with the sound purposefully muted to help you focus on the editing, examine your images alone and out of context. What do they communicate? What is happening in the photograph or illustration? What is the emotional tone? What are any pictured individuals feeling, and what feelings do they stimulate in the viewer? Will your audience relate to, admire and see themselves in the individuals pictured?
As character counts continue to shrink, real estate for images and video continue to expand. Producing good, original photographs, illustration and video to enhance your content and communications is well worth the effort… and the words.
Jim Pontarelli is RDW’s President and lead researcher and planner. Over the years, he’s worked on numerous Fortune 100 brands. Endlessly curious about how people think and behave, he recently became a licensed clinical social worker and trained group therapist.